It’s All Right Love – what’s in a word?

A friend of mine was at the market on Saturday afternoon, buying some fruit. The woman gave him a bag of bananas with a friendly “here you are, dear”. Not only did he accept her term of endearment without question, he responded with a “thanks love”, language he would not normally use. As a business professional, my friend would never use such speech patterns in the workplace, knowing he would likely be hauled over the proverbial coals by one of his colleagues. So why is it OK in the market?

He contacted me to ask what he thought were a couple of simple questions about the use of language “how do we know what language to use” and “what is wrong with using a term of endearment”.

We all grow up learning that different places have different etiquettes; many people use expletives when out with their mates, in the pub or a sports game that they would never use at home. We learn from a young age how to differentiate what is acceptable in terms of language and behaviour from one place to another. Just think how children are at school, where there is a defined rulebook, compared to at home where generally there is none. This feeds back into the recent post about unconscious bias – early life experiences influence our behaviour and language.

As we grow up, we learn the acceptable protocols in society at large by watching and listening. The rulebook is there in the market but less clearly defined and certainly not enforced. In the workplace there is clearer definition and consequences if we go astray.

Regarding the second question, is there is anything intrinsically wrong with using terms of endearments in the workplace? It depends on the people concerned and the situation. How long or how well do people know each other? What is the context of their relationship? What are their relative positions in the organisational hierarchy? Does the language used reinforce power inequalities? These and other questions reveal the complexity of the situation.

“Mind your language” was a survey conducted by Hiscox in autumn 2007 at Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs). Their results showed, amongst other worrying findings, that half of employees in the 25-34 age group think terms of endearment such as “pet” or “love” are acceptable in the office, which of course means that 50% do not. In the same survey, 41% of bosses thought the use of such terms was acceptable. The Hiscox survey revealed regional variations too; people from the north of England appear to be more affectionate and regularly use terms of endearment towards their colleagues.

In a similar survey of female workers by OnePoll, a market research company, it was found that “love” is the most hated pet name, followed by “darling”, “babe” and “hun”. The survey revealed that nearly three-quarters of women think terms of endearment in the office are “unacceptable”, while one in four say it makes them angry. Unsurprisingly, it was mainly male bosses or colleagues who were the likeliest to address a woman with pet names.

On occasions, such language has resulted in claims of sexual harassment that have been upheld by tribunal, stating that any “conduct or language of a sexual nature can create hostile, intimidating or humiliating working environments”.

This leaves me going back to my friend to suggest taking a cautious approach. You will not cause a problem or any difficulty if you only use respectful language. No-one will be offended by formality or courteousness; terms of endearment clearly have their place, but it’s not the workplace.

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
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11 Responses to It’s All Right Love – what’s in a word?

  1. Chris Markiewicz says:

    My my – what a touchy topic this is!
    Whilst I agree that certain terms of endearment can and do cause offence, I’m also very concerned about how sledgehammers can, at times be employed to crack this particular nut. I’m reminded of the tragic case of the middle aged man who committed suicide as a result of being dismissed for using a term of endearment towards a female colleague.

    I think its vital that people who do feel offended are able to express their concern in an assertive way, without having to resort to more formal channels.

    I think there can be a place for using terms of endearment in the workplace – it very much depends on the nature of the relationship. I think that to say it is inappropriate in the workplace “full stop”, is far too hardline and draconian. Get to know your colleagues, establish what’s OK and what isn’t and find ways of dealing with deviations from this in an assertive way.
    Like it or not, it can be part and parcel of how many people engage and I fear that, treating it as some kind of crime or misdemeanour will only serve to make workpace relationships more awkward and brittle.

    • Christine langi says:

      This is a very interesting topic. I agree with Chris, there can be a place for using terms of endearment and it depends on the nature of the relationship with the individuals. My current manager uses ” Thank you love, sweet-heart or darling” without offending anyone. Some colleagues have commented “Do not call that, I am no your darling” One has to be very careful as to when and how to use these.

      • equalityedge says:

        Christine, your comment reinforces the stance I made in the blog. Unless you are absolutely sure of the relationship, it’s best not using the language in the first place. If you do to one member of staff and not to another, what does that say about the relative relationships?

      • Chris Markiewicz says:

        The David Cameron incident reminds me of when my daughter was in hospital. The consultant insisted on calling my partner “mum,”. She responded by declaring that she would henceforth call him “little man” on the basis that, given her 3 year old son is the only male who calls her “mum”, she’ll use the same term of endearment towards the consultant as she uses with her son. He stopped doing it and henceforth called her by her name.

        Even though he sought to use his powerful position in this way, he was unable to continue doing so and hopefully stopped doing so with other mothers..

        The other thing to take into account is that, its not so much the words themselves but the energy/intention behind them. If the term of endearment is put across in a a way that is patronising or sneery, that’s one thing. If, on the other hand it is genuine, then I think that needs to be taken into account and a gentler form of feedback be offered up (if still required at all)..

        I still shudder at the way Police Officers used to speak to me when I was young as they pulled me over in my car “Is this your car, SIR” in the most snidy and sneering of ways…..

    • mark Sykes says:

      ‘the tragic case of the middle aged man who committed suicide as a result of being dismissed for using a term of endearment towards a female colleague’.
      Sounds awful, but there is always more to these things than one simple cause. I would imagine this was the final straw in a series of awful things that happened to him.

  2. equalityedge says:

    I agree, Chris that it must not be a too over-draconian response, though what must be remembered is that terms of endearment are used to reinforce power based relationships and inequalities – clearly not in all circumstances. That I why I acknowledge that there are many variable and that, unless you are sure of the relationship, its best to stay on the safe side.

  3. Bernadette Nagy says:

    or you can be like David Cameron a few weeks ago whilst visiting a maternity ward and saying “Hello Mum” to a new mother…..I heard the clip, but did not see the visual – and it sounded so patronising. This is seemingly off topic…but is it? I think he was trying to be friendly/caring/a term of endearment? ……. but from a superior position in society – so that it sounded just patronising. I think everyone must take care with language – it does make a difference!

    • equalityedge says:


      I couldn’t agree more. It is so easy to get it wrong and many times we hear politicians or others in power positions using similar language to David Cameron. This blog has discussed previously his “calm down, dear” comment levelled at a front bencher across the house.

      The use of terms of endearment, when accompanied by power, are often used as tools of put-down and condescension; keeping people in their place.

  4. Dee says:


    My husband works in retail and recently mentioned this matter because of incident at work. He said that older men who use “love” in conversations at work, use it condescendingly or nastily towards women. It is sexist and meant to demean, bully or upset women. If a man doesn’t know the woman, it is an inappropriate and unacceptable bullying.

    Men should refrain from using this language and advise other men to do the same, as it is obviously upsets a lot of women. Why would a man want to upset, bully or demean a women?

    Women will choose staff/companies that don’t use inappropriate language or bullying tactics at work. Clear guidelines on conduct should be enforced by employers, and men should realise it is bad for business.

    • equalityedge says:


      Thanks for your reinforcing comments.

      The guidelines exist and are quite clear though not always recognised or enforced by employers or managers until it is too late and claims of harassment have been made.

  5. mark Sykes says:

    I would agree with several of the posts that refer to really getting to know the person you are talking to. There is no substitute for getting to know staff/colleagues, their strengths and their preferences. Only then will we know what terms of endearment are appropriate. I can not think of one person I have worked with over the last thirty years who would respond favourably to ‘love’, ‘dear’, or any other of the terms referred to here – I know I would not have appreciated it.

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